Happy Earth Day! While Earth Day is only celebrated one day out of the year, we think it ought to be observed all 365 days of the year. To make that easier for you, let’s take a look at a few ways you can reduce waste in your school nutrition programs. Not only will implementing these suggestions help the environment, but they will help your bottom-line.


1. Plan Your Orders & Preparation

Preparing just the right amount of food for hundreds, maybe even thousands of students is no walk in the park. There is planning and precision involved every step of the way. Fortunately, there’s a tool you’re already using that can make the process a little more predictable: production records.

On your production records, you are required to document the amount of food you serve at each meal. That amount should stay relatively consistent from month to month, barring any unforeseen circumstances. Use that to your advantage. Plan your food orders based on your previous usage. You are more likely to order and prepare the amount you need.

Another step in planning your orders is considering produce. For example, bananas are a tasty fruit to offer on your menu, but not when they’re brown, so plan accordingly. Order your bananas to come in with your Monday delivery, so they are ripe and ready to serve by Wednesday, instead of ordering them at the end of the week and coming back after the weekend to a banana-scented store room.

2. Batch Cook Your Food

Batch cooking is preparing food in small batches as it is needed throughout your meal service. It’s sometimes called just-in-time preparation or cooking to the line. There are two major benefits to batch cooking -- less food waste and better food quality.

There is less food waste, because in batch cooking your food, you prepare only what you need for the meal period. The batch cooking method also ensures your food is as fresh and flavorful as possible for your students. The food isn’t sitting in a warmer for a long period of time, diminishing texture and flavor.

3. Leverage Your Leftovers

School meal leftovers are a big topic lately, both the leftovers in the kitchen and the leftovers in the hands of students. There are two ways we can leverage both of these kinds of leftovers.

The leftovers in your kitchen, that haven’t made their way to your service line, can be reused. If you have a couple extra fresh peaches remaining on Tuesday, offer them along with your other fresh fruit options on Wednesday. You could also re-purpose them in another form. Cut them up and offer them in a parfait or peach salsa. Students will love having the additional options.

Share tables are meant to keep the leftovers in the hands of your students out of the trash. Make a sign and grab a supervisor to make it clear to students what food should and should not be on the share table, as we still have to comply with all local and state health and food safety requirements. For more on share tables, take a look at this link for USDA guidance.

4. Weigh in on Your Waste

Food waste isn’t the only type of waste that adds up in school nutrition programs. There’s also waste coming from plastic, paper, and styrofoam products. School nutrition programs are notorious for using lots of these types of products -- foam trays, plastic cutlery, cupped items, individually packaged foods, etc. While there is a time and place for these items, there are also ways you can reduce your overall waste from these products.

Doing a waste study is the first place to start. If your district is solely using foam trays and plastic cutlery, you can weigh in on what it would cost to start using washable service-ware. Consider the cost of a dish machine, labor, and dish-washing products against the cost of foam and plastic products and the waste they produce over the course of a week. If a dish machine isn’t feasible in your kitchen space, switch to compostable service-ware for a more eco-friendly option.

Another great solution to reducing this type of landfill waste is recycling and composting. School wellness committees, PTOs, and student organizations are typically very eager to get involved in projects like this. Not only will you get students, parents, and community members involved, but you will build interest and excitement around sustainability initiatives. Take a look at this guide from The Virginia Recycling Association to get started.

We hope you enjoyed the tips we shared to reduce waste in your school nutrition program and took away some easy ways to observe Earth Day each and every day!